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Sympathetic cooling of trapped ions through collisions with neutral buffer gases is critical to a variety of modern scientific fields, including fundamental chemistry, mass spectrometry, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics. Despite its widespread use over four decades, there remain open questions regarding its fundamental limitations. To probe these limits, here we examine the steady-state evolution of up to 10 barium ions immersed in a gas of three-million laser-cooled calcium atoms. We observe and explain the emergence of nonequilibrium behaviour as evidenced by bifurcations in the ion steady-state temperature, parameterized by ion number. We show that this behaviour leads to the limitations in creating and maintaining translationally cold samples of trapped ions using neutral-gas sympathetic cooling. These results may provide a route to studying non-equilibrium thermodynamics at the atomic level.
Schowalter, S. J., Dunning, A. J., Chen, K., Puri, P., Schneider, C., & Hudson, E. R. (2016). Blue-sky bifurcation of ion energies and the limits of neutral-gas sympathetic cooling of trapped ions. Nature Communications, 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12448